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Europe seeks to export stealth form of censorship

Flags fluttered outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels.
REUTERS
Flags fluttered outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels.

Europe calls it protecting privacy. But a controversial judicial approach to ridding the Internet of links that might be embarrassing or upsetting to individual Europeans amounts to a stealth form of censorship.

In a new legal gambit stemming from the continent’s “right to be forgotten,” the 28-nation European Union is asserting that the corporate controllers of search engines, such as Google and Bing, must wipe international memory banks of links to individual citizens in cases where courts or regulators have deemed the specific link either inaccurate or “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”

While Europeans esteem freedom of speech, they rarely defend it with the absolutist passion of many Americans. Libel laws are far tougher in Europe than in the United States. Fair enough, for Europeans — but now European courts and regulators are demanding that the rest of the world accept the European view of what information about its citizens should be erased from the collective cloud. This is a recipe for censorship that could have more sinister ramifications than the cyber-blockades imposed by unabashedly repressive regimes such as China.

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Last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that citizens may demand that search engines remove information that links an individual to information — an old bankruptcy proceeding, for example, after a person has regained financial equilibrium — deemed inaccurate, irrelevant, or even “excessive.” Some Europeans seem startled by the reach of the ruling: A report by Britain’s Parliamentary House of Lords found the directive “misguided in principle and unworkable in practice.”

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Nonetheless, according to The New York Times, Google has already complied by culling more than 250,000 links from its European search engines — like Google.fr in France or Google.nl in Holland. The company has balked, however, at the reputation-cleansing of non-European sites such as Google.com. But EU regulators want total scrubbing.

It’s fair to demand accuracy: Search engines should remove links that are flat-out factually wrong. And if Europe wants to legally suppress such vagaries as “irrelevant” or “excessive” as invasive to privacy, that’s Europe’s business and good luck. But the rest of the world should not be obliged to blot out links to, say, a Spanish politician’s outrageous remark because she considers it no longer “relevant,” or a German actor’s drunken excesses because, hey, he’s so past that now. That’s a slippery slope that can lead to far more totalitarian censorship.